Pho Phail But Then a Win
I adore beef pho. Because I am lucky to live in a city like Toronto, there is no need to make it at home to be perfectly honest. Why would I go to all that trouble when I can walk out the door and be at Mimi on Gerrard in 15 minutes, sitting down to a piping hot bowl of perfection. For this reason, I have never actually attempted to make it home.
I grew up in a house where money was tight and food had to stretch to feed 7 people, three of them growing boys who ate like wildebeest with the munchies. Because of this, we ate a lot of hamburger stew, canned creamed corn and white sandwich bread and although my mom did make a few things I really loved, they were special occasion foods and were rare treats. The best day of the year was always my birthday. My mother would not only let us stay home from school for our birthday but she would also make whatever you requested for your special meal. Of course, because I was a horrible child, I made her make the three things that were her most labour intensive dishes. Every year, like clockwork, she knew she was going to have to get up at the crack of dawn and start preparing cabbage rolls and baked beans. She could take a little break mid afternoon but then it was back to the stove to make my scalloped potatoes and lemon meringue pie. This, as you can see, was not an exotic meal but it was my favourite meal and she did indulge me without complaint. For me, it was the other 364 days that I had trouble with.
From the age of 5 I told anyone who asked that when I grew up I would to move to the mythical, magical city Toronto, home to a number of Chinatowns, India Town, Little Italy, and Greektown on the The Danforth and that is precisely what I did the summer after I turned 18.
One of my first apartments here was atop a Vietnamese restaurant on College Street at the mouth of Kensington market. We would eat there three or four times a week because for $5 we could eat until we couldn’t move and the food was more delicious than anything I knew how to make for myself. Shockingly, it was called The Something Saigon like every other Vietnamese joint. Later on I would defect over to the Pho Hung but The Something Siagon was my first love. I would try other dishes from time to time but my favourite thing in the whole world was rare beef pho and I never, ever got sick of eating it.
One day, after a few months of regular patronage, I fell ill and couldn’t go out to eat. After I had not been to the restaurant for a day or two, the owner asked after me and my friends told her I was too sick to come down. The next thing I knew, she came upstairs with a big bowl of soup on a tray for me. She tapped on the door and left a tray with a bowl of beef pho for me. For the next few days she left a tray outside of the door and would pick up the empty bowl that I left back out there in the hall later in the evening. For a young girl away from her mother for the first time, that soup suddenly represented home even though the dish itself couldn’t have been farther away from any food home had ever provided. I spent the next decade traveling and discovering the world but pho was always the first Toronto food I would start to miss and the first meal I would eat when I came home.
Almost 30 years later, pho is still what I crave when I am sick, sad, upset or stressed. It is comfort, love and home rolled up into one steaming bowl of soupy noodles.
Oh and I never ate a bite of canned cream corn again.
A few weeks ago I was asked to write a short post on a food that tells a story about me in some way for Gastropost and so, naturally I chose to write about pho. It pinpoints the exact moment in my life when I first fell in love with the asian flavours that continue to dominate my cooking.
Because I was going to write about pho, I thought I really should try to make it myself and so I spent a couple of days reading blogs and online recipes and they all looked more or less the same. I was intrigued by the idea of making the stock in my crock pot so I finally settled on a recipe, went shopping and got all of my ingredients. Using two crockpots because both of mine were too small for a proper batch, I made it before bed. I dreamed about soup all night long as it simmered away, filling the house with the most amazing smells. When I finally woke up, I jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen, as exited as a kid on christmas morning to taste it and I have to be honest - I was utterly disappointed. It tasted like really fragrant but bland beefy water and nothing like the broth I am used it. The smell was right but the flavour just wasn't there. I could have cried.
For once I followed a recipe to the letter and the broth was just not flavourful and didn't taste like any pho broth I have ever eaten. I kind of panicked and added way more fish sauce and that kind of helped a bit but it was just bland, bland, bland and pho broth needs to almost be a bit over seasoned so that after you add all of the unseasoned noodles and beef, it balances itself out.
My final act of desperation was to dissolve a pho soup cube into the soup and then left it to sit for the day. We did eat it for dinner and although it ended up being pretty tasty once you filled the bowl with all of the herbs and lots of fresh lime, but it still didn't taste quite right and it was certainly not worth all of the time and effort that went into it.
For that reason I am not going to share that recipe.
Okay, all that said, I couldn't stop thinking about my crappy beef broth and I kept looking for other recipes but all of them sounded more or less the same. I have no reason to believe that I will be just as disappointed if I try it again. Some called for roasting the bones first and doing a bit more of that sort of thing, but, to be honest, I just won't do that because I can get great pho anywhere and I didn't want to be let down again.
Then I found this recipe for cheater pho on neighbour food blog. I am okay using the Campbell's low sodium chicken stock in the box but I have never really loved the taste of the beef. I throw chicken stock in everything, regardless of what sort of meat I am cooking but it got good reviews and it couldn't be worse than my original soup, right? So I adapted this recipe a bit, used a bit less beef broth, added a bit of chicken broth and water and made a quick, cheater cheater pumpkin eater pho. I am absolutely embarrassed to say that it was actually tastier than the pho I made from scratch. The best part is that it was also really quick and it was all done and in the bowls and on the table in about 30 minutes.
You know, sometimes it is what it is.
|before and after adding broth|
Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater Beef Phoadapted from neighbor food blog
serves 4 or 5
for the broth: